Is this a “Catholic moment”? Six of the nine Supreme Court justices are Catholic, the vice president and former vice presidential candidate are Catholic, and Catholic moral theology, specifically the Church’s opposition to contraception, has hit mainstream. In venues like the New York Times and the Huffington Post, as well as more traditional and conservative web sites, Catholic thinkers have weighed the proper approach to poverty, abortion, and marriage, pushing into matters—Is Paul Ryan a Randian? What is “intrinsic evil”?—normally found in footnotes.
It’s hard to be a Catholic, survey this scene, and not feel proud. It is encouraging to see such a profound body of thought migrate beyond Catholic forums and into the national conversation. And yet, a downside looms. Catholics today, at least those who follow Catholic life at the public level, are lured constantly into conflict. Starting with the University of Notre Dame’s 2009 invitation to President Barack Obama, and continuing with the quarrelling over healthcare, the last few years have felt like a Pentecost without the Spirit, a wedding with no wine.
Given the rivalry, given the caustic disagreement, it might be helpful to return to a few basic and, I hope, unifying thoughts about the faith born from the empty tomb.
Election season discussion has centered on ideas, or interpretations of theological and moral principles. But discipleship does not hinge upon minute points of moral theology or constitutional law. At the core of Christianity is a person, the Word become flesh, God become man. As Pope Benedict XVI has said, Christianity is fundamentally an encounter with Jesus, not an ideology. If scholars and writers disregard this personal dimension, the Christian faith will have all the charm of tax law. It will strike people as simply a scheme of regulation and not a relationship that opens their lives to hope, freedom, and joy.
On this theme, I return frequently to an essay by historian Eamon Duffy from his book Faith of Our Fathers. In a prologue titled, “When Belief Fails,” Duffy writes that at about the time he finished graduate school, he was not only religious but “successfully religious.” Highly educated, Duffy “met and liked and talked through many long days and nights with people who did not believe,” but he “never encountered anything that seemed half so rich or so satisfying as my inherited Catholicism.”
His assurance would not last. His good friend, an old priest, died. The death exiled Duffy into a terrifying loneliness and instilled
a horrifying realization that one day there would be nothing . . . And with the horror came the realization that God was gone; there was no God, and I had no faith. All the conditioning, all the arguments and emotional scaffolding I had built around and into my life were as if they had never been.
Duffy continued to go to Mass, and his faith began to return. But it was not by constructing more arguments. It was through gradually appreciating, and finally internalizing, that God had redeemed his despair through His self-offering in the Paschal Mystery. The death of Christ “was not an end to his [Christ’s] loving, but the means of its infinite expansion.” Broken by life, renewed by grace, Duffy was empowered to say, “I believe.”
Duffy’s confession reveals the fragility of a kind of academic faith—a faith that is largely untested, and which in its conceptual tidiness and seeming comprehensiveness seduces us, and others, to think we are “successfully religious.” I could say the right things, and think the right things, but what have I really accomplished? How prepared am I for what life may bring?
When evil rips through the mundane and shatters our confidence, issues that normally captivate can become mockingly irrelevant. In those moments, only a few questions matter: “Can I trust in reality? Is there a God? In what, or in whom, can I hope?” When someone falls to this point, one is often faced not with the choice of darkness on the one hand and light on the other. Rather, it is a matter of two darknesses: the darkness offered by the world, and the darkness offered by God. And it is into His emptiness, the shadow of the cross, that we are beckoned to enter.
Catholic efforts to dignify the culture and persuade people to embrace Christian values will stall if Catholics and other Christians do not empathize with these shadowed moments and primal questions. If today some men and women seem slow to adhere to some moral or political teaching of the Catholic faith, it is perhaps because there is a deeper restlessness that is left unaddressed. It is perhaps because so much Catholic commentary seems detached from the concerns that cause people anxiety.
This is not to devalue the need to think critically and theologically about the more targeted issues that line a ballot. Rather, it is to recall that Christian faith is a multidimensional project that involves the mysterious marriage between creature and creator, between finite and infinite. It is absolutely irreducible to a vote, a viewpoint, or compliance with a platform. If we are tempted to doubt this, we need only listen to what Jesus said to a crucified criminal:
“Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Matt Emerson’s essays have appeared in America, Commonweal, First Things, and at Patheos.com. He directs admissions and teaches theology at Xavier College Preparatory in Palm Desert, CA. You can find the rest of his work at www.emersoninwords.com.
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